Michelle DeYoung, Alan Held, and the San Francisco Symphony inside Duke Bluebeard's Castle. Photo by  Kristen Loken

For the penultimate program of its centennial season, the San Francisco Symphony decided to go big with a semi-staged production of Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle featuring two strong singers, Alan Held in the title role and mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung as Judith, his most recent wife. I had never heard it live before Thursday night- it's been more than thirty years since it was last performed by the Symphony, and San Francisco Opera hasn't staged it since 1965, making the opera a rarity I've been looking forward to all season long.

Jeremy Denk opened the show as the soloist in Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1, a piece which I've long considered somewhat vulgar, akin to watching elephants performing a line dance at a circus- one admires the work it takes to pull off, but it's too gross to appreciate as more than spectacle. However, Denk seemed happy to take a break from the challenges of the thornier works he's played during his recent visits and show off a bit. Still, the audience seemed to want to get on to the main event, and the response was somewhat tepid. Perhaps I'm not the only one in the house who thought it an odd thing to appear on this program. One of Bartók's piano concertos, especially the 2nd, would have made more sense.

After the intermission Duke Bluebeard's Castle began with Ken Ruta placed high above the stage in one of four turrets reading the prologue, setting the stage for an ambiguous interpretation of what was about to unfurl- the tale of Bluebeard's newest wife wanting to know what's behind the locked doors, and learning the truth one horror at a time. There are a few ways one can interpret the work- from Bluebeard's perspective, from Judith's, or from somewhere outside looking in, with each one offering multiple vantage points. With only two characters involved, and little "action," it becomes a psychological chess match. Is one of them crazy? Are both? Is it the story of a murderer or of a man letting his guard down. Is Judith a sympathetic, but insecure new bride, or is she just a loon? For the record, I side with the latter interpretation on both counts.

Somewhere between the third and fourth door I began to wonder if the staging was really adding all that much to the show. The stage was surrounded by grey castle walls with turrets leaning in to create a sense of the claustrophobic. Projections on walls and lighting effects sought to create atmosphere and illustrate the text. During the sequence depicting what lies behind the first door  (Bluebeard's torture chamber), the castle walls filled with "Hellraiser"-ish imagery of protruding bloody nails and short spikes in a fun, Grand Guignol way, but the after that the images and lighting began to feel somewhat rote- not taking away from anything, but containing few surprises. So I tried to wipe the staging from my mind and imagine how it would play without it and realized it really did add something to the whole. But I thought that it shouldn't- that this small drama between a couple played for high stakes would be best without the distraction of images and lights- just let the voices, the dramatic capabilities of the singers and the music do the work.

That wouldn't have worked however, at least here, because of one real problem- the placing of the singers behind the orchestra instead of in front, which created a sense of distance too hard to penetrate despite the best efforts of Held and DeYoung, whose performances were invested with as much attention to the physical as they were to the vocal, but even singers as skilled as these two had a hard time connecting from the back of the stage. The placing of the surtitles on the sides rather than above the stage also hindered the whole, causing those of us who don't know the libretto by heart or speak Hungarian to look away to follow the lines.

Still, the singing and music were splendid, and when the fifth door opened to reveal Bluebeard's treasure, the Davies organ kicked in (it's the largest in the country) with the brass blaring behind it, creating a sensationally loud and thrilling effect, though the blinding lights shining into the audience were a bit obnoxious. The percussion section especially shone, but the entire orchestra under Michael Tilson Thomas seemed committed to bring everything to the performance.

The final program of the centennial season, featuring MTT leading the orchestra in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Ligeti's Lux Aeterna and Schoenberg's A Survivor from Warsaw has a few tickets left and you'd be foolish not to get one before the entire four-night run sells out.